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Christoph Koncz conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic with Chinese soloist Zee Zee in a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic

ReviewZee Zee’s jaw-dropping technique and touch, focused Hong Kong Philharmonic to the fore in Liszt piano concerto and Brahms symphony

  • From hurtling octaves to hushed arpeggios, Chinese virtuoso Zee Zee was in total command in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the HK Phil
  • Conductor Christoph Koncz’s expertly shaped Brahms Symphony No 1 brought out the best from the orchestra’s strings and principals Jiang Lin and Andrew Simons

The latest sign of the concert scene’s robust return to life was an equally robust performance of works by Liszt and Brahms from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Austrian conductor Christoph Koncz.

The concert on May 5, to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations between China and Austria, featured the piano virtuoso Zee Zee (or Zuo Zhang) in her first appearance outside mainland China since giving birth last year in Shenzhen, where she grew up.

Her jaw-dropping technique and touch in Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 was something to behold. Zee Zee made her intentions known right off the bat, fearlessly playing the opening octave passage that spans the keyboard, a mere teaser for what was to follow and such a powerful response to the orchestra’s aptly majestic and frankly villainous Allegro Maestoso that she might as well have shouted “Take that!”

When the pyrotechnics settled, something akin to a love duet ensued between piano and clarinet (the latter performed by principal clarinettist Andrew Simons) that resembled a warm, tender embrace. But not a long one. Zee Zee was soon back with ferocious downward chromatic octaves that seemed to make the upper balconies shake.

Zhang Zuo, or Zee Zee, produced playing that dazzled in its delicacy and ferocity. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic

Whenever musical tenderness emerged, however, the Chinese pianist was always up to the task. Later in the first section she superbly imitated the sound of a harp with brisk, yet hushed arpeggios.

Zee Zee’s treatment of thematic material included an otherworldly nocturne of soft, flowing left-hand arpeggios that acted like a cushion supporting the lovely cantabile melody of the cello and double bass playing in glorious unison in the second section.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic under Austrian conductor Christoph Koncz hit all the right buttons. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic

Famously mocked as a “Triangle Concerto” by 19th century critic Eduard Hanslick for the prominence in the orchestral score of the percussion instrument, the third section of the Liszt also had some playful duets between Zee Zee and the wind players that were just delightful.

But when the movement turned darker, the pianist lent the eerie tremolando passage in the lower register a hushed and haunting quality. Tirelessly, she continued to impress in the fourth and final section with exciting trilling, polyrhythms, and even more of the now familiar downward cascading chromatic octaves that eventually reached breakneck speed and thrilled the appreciative Hong Kong audience.

More substantial late-romantic fare followed. Koncz’s luxurious and engaging interpretation of Johannes Brahms’ masterful and expansive Symphony No.1 in C minor saw the Hong Kong Philharmonic hit all the right buttons and more.

Christoph Koncz conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic in the Brahms Symphony No 1. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic

The sense of gravity that the orchestra achieved in the tragic opening was glorious. The strings in the lyrical passages were finely honed and noticeably more focused than in recent performances, while the interjections and plucking were by and large energetic and precise.

Koncz shaped the ebb and flow in the lyrical second movement in an engaging way as he extracted just the right amount of lilt and charm from his players. There was wonderful syncopated interplay between the higher and lower strings, while the woodwind section paved the way for the lovely violin and horn duet, in which principal horn Jiang Lin shone, as he did later in the joyous “Alphorn” solo of the Finale.

Simons’ clarinet playing was as alluring as ever in the short and jovial third movement, and the vast final movement was joyous, with horns and trombones heralding the theme of the Alphorn call with great nobility and grandeur over a wonderful landscape of shimmering strings.

Likewise, the main striding C major theme, universally likened to Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy” theme from his Ninth Symphony (much to Brahms’ irritation), was crafted and worked by Koncz with expertise. The triumphant sequence fittingly concluded one of the highlights of recent Hong Kong Philharmonic performances.

Zee Zee Plays Liszt/ Brahms 1, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Reviewed May 5.